There's a real possibility that this Saturday's SEC on CBS Game of the Week between No. 3 Georgia and No. 24 South Carolina will decide the SEC East. And yet, it's a game that's going to have a heavy SEC West flavor. Perhaps that's a coincidence. More likely, it's the formative characteristic that has both of these teams in a decided "up" cycle.
The movement began in 2016 with the hiring of Will Muschamp and Kirby Smart. The SEC East had hit a malaise becoming lambs being led to the slaughter each year in the SEC Championship Game that the East has not won since 2008 when Urban Meyer was still in the league.
Georgia had tired of a coach that had hit his ceiling in Mark Richt. South Carolina was looking to replace a declining and exiting Steve Spurrier. Against a backdrop of seven straight SEC Championship game losses by an average margin of defeat of 21 points, both programs went to coaches with the West blueprint, the Nick Saban blueprint.
The East had tried this before. Florida was first when it hired Muschamp himself to get the Gators back on track following the departure of Meyer. He quickly retreated back to the SEC West to run Auburn's defense. Derek Dooley, a jack of many trades and master of none under Saban at LSU, failed badly as Tennessee's coach. Florida attempted to go back to the well with Jim McElwain, Saban's former offensive coordinator at Alabama, before that went off the rails.
But South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner hired Muschamp despite the Florida stumbles. Georgia's Greg McGarity picked Kirby Smart despite Smart boasting no head coaching experience. Two years later, another former Saban defensive coordinator landed in Knoxville, Tennessee, with the hiring of Jeremy Pruitt. Among the common characteristics of the three was that each were ace recruiters. And they each were successful, national championship defensive coordinators under Saban. They weren't position coaches or steering the supporting cast on offense. They were the first lieutenants overseeing the flagship units.
But the SEC West DNA, the Saban bloodlines, don't stop with the head coaches. It permeates each program.
At South Carolina, director of player personnel Matt Lindsey, a two-time member of the 247Sports 30-under-30 list, joined the program in 2017 after a four-year stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. But his roots are at Alabama, where he was a student recruiting assistant under Saban for three years.
At Georgia, the director of player personnel is Marshall Malchow. He helped Smart supplant Alabama for the first time in seven years for the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 2018. Malchow joined Georgia in 2016 after spending time working under Chris Petersen at Washington. But Malchow cut his teeth in recruiting in the same place as Lindsey. He was a recruiting specialist in the player personnel department as an undergraduate at Alabama under Saban.
Pruitt was in the same spot. He made the jump from high school coach to director of player development under Saban at Alabama and worked closely with yet another Bama undergraduate with a knack for recruiting in Drew Hughes, who is now his director of player personnel after stops at UCF, NC State and most recently Florida.
There are undoubtedly some common beliefs held in the recruiting war rooms at Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee as to what their rosters should look like. There's going to be some top down mandates as to what the on-field product should look like, too. The simple spoiler is this: They want to look bigger and be stronger.
Georgia was the quickest rebuild. The roster was already talented and the natural resources are there to stock the cupboard quickly. Will Muschamp's acceleration at South Carolina took a little bit more savvy, but the roster has steadily morphed into what we're used to seeing on the other side of the conference. The job is just beginning for Tennessee, where all-purpose backs are being replaced by jumbo backs and a 350-pound nose tackles are the apple of the new staff's eye.
The steady rise of the Saban disciples needs a familiar foil, too. Conveniently, Dan Mullen has signed on to that role. After a nine-year stint at Mississippi State, Mullen returns to Florida, where he won two national championships under Meyer as the offensive coordinator. Even if Mullen operates under the Meyer handbook as opposed to the Saban way, he'll still bring a lot of familiarity to the division simply by presenting same contrasting style to the new East as he brought to the old West.
As a division, the East is about to cycle back up. It's about to be bigger, stronger and more physical. It's about to regularly challenge the West once again. Georgia is already there. On Saturday, we find out if the Bulldogs are still waiting for company. The answer to that will be decided in the trenches, where units have been cobbled together by some very common beliefs.
1. Ed Orgeron didn't like Matt Canada very much it seems: At least he didn't like his offense. A critical hire for Orgeron at offensive coordinator, the shifts and motions and jet sweeps that Canada employed were more slight-of-hand than Orgeron seemed to prefer. He's back in his comfort zone this fall with Steve Ensminger at coordinator, less formational gymnastics and a 1-0 start.
It appears though that had Orgeron wanted to stay in house to rethink the offense, he had more than one good option. Jeff Grimes, LSU's offensive line coach from 2014-17, quietly left LSU to take the offensive coordinator job at BYU this offseason and his new unit looked great in a 28-23 upset over Arizona.
What I found interesting was that it looked like Grimes may have been employing a Canada-Orgeron balance that would have been much more palatable for his old coach. He appeared to take a lot of Canada's affection for the jet sweep action with him, but he also seemed to balance that effectively with some good old fashion downhill football. He caught Arizona with tempo at times to provide even more contrast. The Grimes hire may end up saving Kilani Sitaki's job. Ensminger may bring the same life raft to Orgeron. Meanwhile, Canada may be earning himself a head job after upsetting Texas as an interim coach at Maryland. Maybe we're in for a happy ending all around.
2. Speaking of that Arizona-BYU game, is this the Khalil Tate that Kevin Sumlin wanted? Is this the Khalil Tate that Khalil Tate wanted? Tate nixed a Ken Niumatalolo hire because he didn't want to run the "triple option." Nevermind that he had just gotten done taking the college football world by storm in an option offense under Rich Rodriguez.
With an NFL future in mind, I can understand the appeal of developing as a passer under Sumlin. But throwing the football isn't what makes Tate dangerous. And the Pac-12 is getting off easy if every game is going to be like what we saw on Saturday: 14 yards on eight carries wasn't a defense bottling Tate up. It was an offense that appeared to have no designed quarterback runs on the play sheet. I'm selfish. I hope we see more of Tate's athleticism. College football is more fun that way.
3. Is Jarrett Stidham comfortable in the Auburn offense? I've seen some comments about Stidham looking extremely comfortable and confident in the Auburn offense this weekend in the win over Washington. I think that's misstated. It looks to me like it's not Stidham that's comfortable in the offense but the offense that is finally comfortable with Stidham.
Auburn was tough to watch at times last season on offense, particularly early in the season. It just looked like an unnatural marriage between Stidham and his offensive coaching staff. The pass game didn't appear to give Stidham options, shot plays without intermediate options or check-down outlets. It was an offense used to using a running quarterback and building the pass game off of that threat.
On Saturday, Stidham looked like he had much more in front of him in terms of progressions and pass-game options. He looked better for it, and so did Auburn. The run game will come -- it always does for Gus Malzahn teams -- but it feels like the pass game has already arrived.